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(For the week of January 18, 2010)
The Mallard
by James L. Cummins

Duck season is now in full swing. The drake mallard is the most sought after species of waterfowl in Mississippi. During February and March, mallards are leaving their wintering grounds and begin the migration to the nesting grounds. Mallards usually reach their nesting grounds around April and May.

As large flocks arrive at the larger water areas of the breeding grounds, they begin to break up as pairs and disperse to potholes and other small water areas. Within a few days of selecting a particular pothole, the pair selects a nest site. The hen forms a nest bowl in plant litter or earth. The area is 7 to 8 inches in diameter and 1 to 2 inches deep. The hen lays one egg a day until the clutch is complete. Mallards lay an average of 9 eggs per clutch. Incubation lasts 26 to 30 days.

Nest failure can be a significant problem and predation is the largest contributor to nesting failure. Skunks, raccoons, red fox, crows and magpies are all principal destroyers of mallard nests.

Adult drake mallards, or "greenheads" as they are commonly called in the United States, have a glossy green head, a yellow bill and a white neck-ring which separates the green head from the chestnut-brown breast. The sides are gray. The tail consists of a white section sandwiched between two black sections. The wing spectrum is an iridescent violet-blue which is bordered by a pronounced white stripe at the front and back. The legs and feet are a bright coral-red color.

The hen mallard, or "susie," as is common with most waterfowl species, is mottled brown in color, usually being darker on the upper body and lighter on the lower body. The bill is usually orange in color and the legs and feet are a dull orange.

The mallard is the most vocal of all commonly hunted waterfowl species. Though drakes are rather quiet, the hen has a variety of quacks that set the standard of comparison with other species and for hunters attempting to call ducks.

Mallards are dabbling ducks or what are commonly referred to as puddle ducks. They frequent shallow waters rather than deep lakes or bays. Lowland areas, such as sloughs and beaver ponds covered with a foot or two of water, provide prime habitat for mallards.

Like other dabbling ducks, mallards feed by tipping up rather than diving beneath the water. Mallards feed on a variety of natural foods such as wild millet, smartweed, a variety of grasses and other plants. Mallards also feed on waste grains such as rice, corn, soybeans and sorghum.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.